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In our data-rich world, here’s the most fascinating aspect of spatial analysis: The more complex the problem, the more multi-layered it is, the more powerful spatial analysis is.

Understanding and managing climate impacts, community by community.

Reducing the carbon impact of a supply chain, step-by-step.

Unraveling the socioeconomic damage from decades of redlining and structural inequality.

Determining where to invest in infrastructure to maximize return on investment and manage the environment more holistically, city by city, state by state.

Location provides something that data desperately needs: Context.

It makes the numbers meaningful, turning them into a story that is clear, compelling, actionable.

Location, combined with today’s cutting-edge technology, matters more than ever and so I haven’t been surprised at all to see Deloitte & Touche LLP call attention to how spatial thinking is playing a critical role in helping solve some of our weightiest challenges, including in their report, The Rise of Spatial Thinking. In a podcast interview, I spoke with Jerry Johnston, the firm’s leader in location intelligence for its government and public service practice and co-author of the spatial thinking report. The observations about the value of spatial analytics to address our biggest challenges are even more on-point now than when we first spoke, and I wanted to share some of the highlights and excerpts of that conversation here with you.

Question: Technology that takes into account spatial considerations is increasingly part of our daily lives, perhaps without many people knowing, whether they are searching for an address, ordering a rideshare, or watching their food delivery en route. The implication is that we may eventually be able to know the location of anything we want at any given time, as your report notes. What’s driving this rise in spatial thinking?

Answer: First is recognizing that the volume and diversity of location data has truly exploded. There’s tons of high-resolution, high-quality, high temporal frequency spatial data available. At the same time, the cost of acquiring and analyzing this data has rapidly declined. One of the remarkable statistics we found in doing our research was the cost of location-enabled chips for cellular connectivity is expected to decline 70 percent between 2017 and 2023, which is creating a huge demand for these things in the marketplace.

We see people taking advantage of the availability of the data and the cheaper technology, and they’re building really clever applications. There’s an example in the report that we cite about an Indian bank that cut the decision-making timeframe for how they issue credit to farmers by fivefold because they started using satellite data analytics. That’s a great example where the fundamental technology to do that kind of work, and the data, have been around in the geospatial industry for a long time, but only recently the right data and analytics were broadly accessible enough that they could be widely applied across sectors.

Q: Around the world, countries are fortifying their physical systems and embracing smart infrastructure by focusing on technology such as sensors, location-based digital twins, and AI that takes into account spatial thinking when designing and building these new systems. What do we need to do in the US to successfully modernize infrastructure?


A: I firmly believe that the planning and implementation of all these infrastructure investments will be heavily dependent on location-based technology data. “Where” questions are front and center when you think about how it is that we’re going to improve infrastructure across the country. Where are we going to locate this new facility? Or where are the people that are going to see the biggest impact or benefit from this particular investment, for example? All of these core, place-based questions are going to be asked in the coming months and years.

Q: How does geospatial technology help transform these endeavors and lead to decisions around trade-offs?

A: Advanced analytics and the development of GIS-based digital twins specifically, can really help take that type of work to the next level. Let’s pick an infrastructure project that changes a major transportation path—a new bridge. A GIS-based digital twin can help planners understand how this change in infrastructure will not just change the patterns of traffic but planners can use it as a model to assess what the long-term impact on the community might be, and simulate how people will adapt. Will they change their commuting patterns? Will they move to other neighborhoods because of that change? What’s going to happen to local air quality and ultimately local health outcomes because of that change?

Q: Why do you think government adoption of geospatial technology has preceded commercial adoption?

A: A really interesting report from the National Geospatial Advisory Committee called “The Changing Geospatial Landscape,” documents a lot of the early history of government innovation in the geospatial marketplace from the first commercial street maps to GPS. When the selective availability was turned off on satellites, that was a major accelerator for other industries to use the data. The Landsat program, the government’s investment in satellite data starting in the 1970s, has created an industry for Earth observations and available geospatial data. Government agencies had mission needs for location data and for location analytics, and industry has taken these data sources and applications, and really built on top of it to advance and evolve capabilities in other disciplines as well.

Q: If governments have ‘mission’ needs for location intelligence, what are industry’s needs?

A: Operational efficiency is a big one as well as gaining a competitive advantage. Are there things that you can find out in your business that help you outcompete, that help you make better decisions about where to put your assets, where to invest in new capabilities, where to find talent? How is it that you can deliver services, run your operations, and serve customers more effectively through spatial technologies?

One example that comes to mind is indoor location analytics and thinking about where people are in a hospital, where the equipment is, and how you can most effectively move equipment and patients around to lead to better health outcomes and patient satisfaction. Ultimately, for the healthcare facility, that can drive down costs.

Q: Costs will also be a significant factor in the country’s infrastructure investments. What’s one of the biggest challenges the US will need to overcome as it undertakes this overhaul to so many of our essential systems?

A: Making sure that while we’re planning and implementing these projects, we’re also investing in geospatial technology to track the benefits of these infrastructure improvements over time. There’s a long history in government of using location technology to understand where we should make investments or where money is spent.

Right now, we’re looking at a great opportunity to more effectively use GIS technology (geographic information system) to track progress as well as monitor and support decision-making that can help people make needed course corrections or adjustments, and ultimately, measure the benefits to the public.

To learn more about how location intelligence can help businesses make critical operational and strategic decisions, visit esri.com/locationintelligence.


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